A true gospel great has passed away at the age of 74 Brad Barket/Invision/AP
Brad Barket/Invision/AP

A gospel great who gave us one of the most enduring spiritual songs of the 20th century has died.

Edwin Hawkins has passed away at age 74. According to “The New York Times,” he had been battling pancreatic cancer. Hawkins was best known for his surprise crossover hit, “Oh Happy Day,” which reached the top five on the pop charts in 1969.

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The song’s runaway success was a big surprise. Edwin and his singing group, the Northern California State Youth Choir, recorded “Oh Happy Day” as part of an album they only intended to sell locally around Oakland, California. The money they raised from the album was meant to help them travel to a singing competition in Southern California. It ended up launching Edwin to a Grammy-winning music career.

A local station in the Bay Area began playing “Oh Happy Day,” and it started to become a local hit. With the group now renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers, they released the song as a single. It sold seven million copies, hit No. 1 in several European countries and earned Edwin a Grammy for Best Soul Gospel Performance. He would go on to win three more Grammys and pick up another 19 nominations over the course of his career.

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Edwin once said, “I wasn’t planning to go into the music business. The record’s success decided my fate.”

“Oh Happy Day” went on to be covered many times, including this televised performance from Glen Campbell.

The song was the title track from Glen’s 1970 gospel album, and it ended up being a top 10 hit for Glen on the Easy Listening chart, too.

Elvis Presley also covered “Oh Happy Day” during one of his legendary shows at the International Hotel in Las Vegas in 1970.

Of course, “Oh Happy Day” has shown up in several movies over the years. This standout performance of the song from Whoopi Goldberg’s “Sister Act 2: Back in the Habit” will be familiar to a lot of folks.

It was also featured in the movies “Big Momma’s House,” “Nutty Professor II: The Klumps” and “Secretariat.”

Other artists covering “Oh Happy Day” include Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Ray Charles.

Reaction to Edwin Hawkins’ passing soon started pouring in on social media.

Of note, the Edwin Hawkins Singers also appeared on the 1970 Melanie pop hit, “Lady Down (Candles in the Rain).”

In this TV interview,  Melanie said she was honored to have the group on the song.

“I just couldn’t record it all by myself,” Melanie says. “We knew it needed something special. The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if a religious group or some group could sing with me?’ I didn’t dream that the Edwin Hawkins Singers would do it because they were very big.”

Later in life, Edwin performed with his brother Walter, who also passed away from pancreatic cancer in 2010.

Hunter Kelly is a senior correspondent for Rare Country. Follow him on Twitter @Hunterkelly.
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